Birds of a feather flock to ornithologist Tim Earl’s chirpy Earl-y Birds Club on cruise ship Minerva. Lesley Bellew dragged herself from under the covers to join them.
Like thieves in the night we crept out of our beds, pulled trousers over our pyjamas and tiptoed up to the Bridge Deck for a mid-ocean rendezvous in the eerie darkness.
As Minerva sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar we watched the palest of gold sun begin to rise between the mighty Rift Mountains on the African continent and the tip of southern Spain.
With binoculars at the ready, and a cup of tea to hand, we could make out the coastline of Tarife while we waited for migratory birds to grace us with their presence.
We pushed on past Zahara del los Atunas, a tuna fishing port since Phoenician times, and Baelo Claudia, the Roman port where the remains of garum (fish sauce) factories can still be seen today.
Morning had now well and truly broken with young, speckled gannets checking out Minerva while we reaped a lively geography-cum-history lesson from our birdman, the ship’s guest ornithologist, Tim Earl, who was worryingly chirpy at 6am.
He regaled stories of the Swinging Sixties when Moroccan gold from the Rift Mountains gave its name to reefers, ‘the best marijuana you could buy’. “Although I never smoked it myself,” he hastened to add.
We were also intrigued by his fishy tales of garum, the Roman delicacy which was exported all over the empire from Andalucía.
We had almost forgotten the birds when up came a shout: “Audoin’s gulls, Audoin’s gulls.”
Two elegant gulls came into view and close enough to display their distinctive red bill and grey legs.
It was perhaps time to admit to never having heard of an Audoin’s gull, let alone identify one, but Tim was already in raptures, going full steam ahead with geeky information.
“These gulls lived on a wing and a prayer for years before becoming the subject of a conservation programme… they remain on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (ICUN) Red List as a near threatened species,” he said waving his arms about.
“It’s fantastic to see them. What a great morning!” Tim’s enthusiasm was contagious and when a few stowaways blew in on the Mistral between Spain and Portugal, he was on patrol to feed them up so they could continue on their way.
Dazed reed warblers could count themselves lucky – they would have fallen straight into the sea had Minerva not been passing. A yellow wagtail and collared dove also hitched a ride and were treated like royalty by the paying guests.
Cory’s shearwaters flew overhead near Cartagena and we became hooked on racking up new sightings.
“These birds are the nearest you’ll get to an albatross on this side of the world,” enthused Tim, reeling off their three-foot wingspan, style of flight and probably inside leg measurement if you wanted it. At the same time, a swallow stopped for a rest on Minerva’s string of party lights and as it glistened in the sunshine we decided one swallow had already made our summer.
Close to Portugal, Sabine’s gulls glided across the stern. To the rookies they could have been Black-Headed gulls, but these were smaller and when they swooped low their wings were distinctively outlined with a black ‘W’.
The serious birders were in quite a flap as we counted 10 of these rare gulls – and then, in a flash, Fin whales piped up to steal their thunder.
Two huge blows of water were enough to thrill even Captain John Moulds who put out a message over the ship’s loudspeaker. A pair broke the surface, showing off their long backs to a spell-bound audience, joined by pods of dolphins leaping alongside the ship. We were in David Attenborough heaven.
These moments of awe created a buzz throughout the ship as both crew and passengers shared their sightings. Despite Minerva’s every luxury and full-on entertainment programme, simple pleasures topped the bill every time.
Tim Earl’s animated commentaries also dove-tailed nicely with tours on this Palaces and Gardens cruise as we sailed from Italy to France, Spain and Portugal. Passengers could chase around Corsica with Tim looking for the indigenous nuthatch or tune in to birdsong while strolling around magnificent palaces.
Gardens historian and guest speaker Caroline Holmes took our understanding of garden visiting to an intellectual level and combined with Tim to offer an appreciation of nature’s wonders.
At the 18th century Queluz National Palace, in Lisbon, formal geometric box parterres gave way to open spaces where, by the waterside, visitors once danced on camomile lawns while an orchestra played on balmy evenings.
In the surrounding orange groves, wildflowers were left to their own devices while blackcaps and finches brought the former royal summer residence alive.
Caroline said: “When people look at pictures of gardens they forget the sounds. At Queluz, the scent and colour of the orange groves combined with the birdscape make this a very special place to visit.”
In Elche’s palm groves, a nightingale proved her point as its song lifted the beauty of the UNESCO world heritage site to create a memory of Spain to treasure for life.
This was Caroline’s first assignment on Minerva and she fitted in a treat, taking our intellectual understanding of garden design to another level, spiced with colourful stories of fashion, conceit and intrigue.
We revelled in the tale of banking heiress Beatrice Ephrussi de Rothschild who made her gardeners wear berets with a red pom-pom so she could see they were working on her 17-acre estate in Nice.
At its height, the Rothschild family possessed the largest private fortune in modern world history so when Beatrice built her coral pink villa between 1905 and 1912 she indulged in her every whim. She even sliced off the top of the cliff at Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat to create a garden in the shape of a cruise liner sailing into the Cote d’Azur.
We were almost falling over ourselves to see deck upon deck of exotic planting during the Fete of Roses and yet, despite all the warnings, the villa and gardens were more fragrant and spectacularly flamboyant than surely even Beatrice had dreamed.
The Alhambra, in Granada, is now Tourist Central but we were well-prepared to imagine an oasis of peace as well as understanding at least some of the symbolism and poetry in the decorative motifs.
We could picture the sultan sitting in the shadows while his guests made their way through a myriad of gardens, passing carpet-like flower beds and carved marble pillars creating a forest of shadows.
Every courtyard was criss-crossed by water, reflecting the sun onto ornate carvings like crystals. We stepped into the glistening marble Patio of Lions - and all we were missing was a flying carpet to complete the magic.
About Minerva Minerva is a small ship, carrying a maximum of 350 passengers. Named after the goddess of wisdom, Minerva attracts guests with an insatiable appetite for knowledge so a non-stop programme of lectures, tours, deck talks and musical recitals are organised.
During a multi-million pound refurbishment last year, 32 balcony cabins were added and more public space was created while retaining much of the ship’s character.
Original brass fittings and decorative doors echo the glamour of cruising while the new Orpheus Lounge offers panoramic views from the Promenade Deck.
There are no restrictive set sittings at mealtimes. Passengers can choose from a buffet, eat al fresco or sit down to a full waiter service in the Swan Lounge. The dress code is smart-casual with occasional formal nights.
Factfile Lesley Bellew travelled on Minerva with British cruise line Swan Hellenic which celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2014. To view 2014 cruise programmes visit www.swanhellenic.com or call 0844 822 0679.